Friday, 29 January 2010

Call me cynical...!

The Labour Party's Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington has come out publicly in opposition to her Council Group's deplorable plan to axe the Early Year's Inclusion Service. Cllr Chapman, who has only just stepped down from the Cabinet to concentrate on fighting the General Election, would have been party to the decision to propose the axing of this service.

The Labour Group is firmly whipped: yet here is one of their most prominent members speaking publicly against a Labour Group proposal: a proposal, by the way, which would save relatively little money, yet which would remove an invaluable caring and life-enhancing facility from a very disadvantaged group in our town.

Call me cynical (and, where the Labour Party is concerned I plead guilty) but it seems to me that they have caused huge anxiety and distress among parents and staff by proposing to axe this service, yet have never had any intention of actually doing so. I'm prepared to bet that this proposal will be dropped following the "consultation" phase, allowing Cllr Chapman to claim the credit for saving the service.

After all, the alternative, if they do go ahead with their proposals, will be to paint Cllr Chapman as ineffective - and, of course, she'd be morally bound to vote against the budget proposals when they come to Council (though she was not at Council last night, so maybe she would find some other pressing engagement when the Budget Council Meeting is held) and in so doing would presumably be expelled from the Labour Group.

If my suspicions are correct, this would be an entirely reprehensible and cynical ploy by the Labour Party: to cause huge public upset and anxiety, simply to gain a short-term political advantage for their Parliamentary Candidate. Mind you, that's what they're doing over the Stroke Unit, so it's not as if they haven't got previous here.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

More 20 mph zones, please

This evening in Full Council I had a question down for Cllr Lyonette, the Cabinet's Transport portfolio holder. It read:

"In December 2009 the Government’s Road Safety Minister announced proposals which would allow local councils to introduce 20 mph zones in residential areas without the need for traffic calming measures such as speed humps.
The Department for Transport is seeking the views of local councils on these proposals in order to allow new guidance to be published at the earliest available opportunity.
Has the Council responded to this consultation request and if so, what was the nature of that response?"

As a cyclist, pedestrian and someone who lives on a busy residential road, I am very much in favour of having 20 mph zones where ever possible in residential areas.

In Portsmouth, for example, where 94% of that city’s roads are subject to a 20mph speed limit, there has been a significant drop in road casualties. The same is true in places like Hull and Newcastle where Lib Dem Councils have pushed ahead with more 20mph roads. York, Norwich and eight London Boroughs are currently planning much wider use of 20mph limits. As well as cutting road deaths and injuries they are also better for the environment and more peaceful for local residents.

We know from our ward surveys that residents like 20mph speed limits in residential areas: what they often don’t like are the traffic calming measures which Councils are currently obliged to install in these zones. Allowing councils to put in place 20 mph speed limits on more streets without speed humps or chicanes will mean that they can introduce them at a lower cost and with less inconvenience to local residents. In due course, if Councils across the country act on this, 20mph instead of 30mph could become the default speed in residential areas.

Cllr Lyonette said the Council will be responding positively to the consultation and will be looking to take advantage of the opportunities offered. I used my right to a supplementary question to urge Cllr Lyonette to take full advantage of the Government's proposals when they are announced and to extend the areas covered by 20mph zones more widely across the town.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Ward walkabout

A couple of hours this afternoon strolling around parts of North Road ward with Fred and Anne-Marie. Spotted one particular patch of grass outside Bob Harrison Court, near the new school, clearly used as a dog toilet. Six fresh deposits in a 6ft by 4ft patch of grass, now captured for ever in digital colour. John Herdman will be hearing about this on Monday morning.

The main problem we found was the removal of three substantial stakes erected along the Whessoe Road end of North Park, put there to stop vehicles getting into the park. Someone has deliberately pulled them out of the ground and used the gap to ride quad bikes into the park. The football pitch has been used as a quad bike race track, with substantial damage to the playing surface. We have put so much time and effort, as have the Friends of North Park, the Council and Groundwork, into getting the park improved - and then we get this selfish anti-social behaviour.

We also spoke to local residents living on Crosby Street who should have been included in the Council's consultation about the proposed Longfield Road 20mph zone, but haven't been. We'll make sure their views are known.

Then it was back to Haughton East for some more leafletting!

Update 26th January. Street Scene have investigated and found four posts missing and four needing to be re-set. This will be done as soon as possible.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Election Debate

According to a tweet from Peter Barron, the editor of the Northern Echo, who chaired the first Darlington Debate earlier this week, the next Debate will be an election special featuring the candidates.

But will they - should they - invite the BNP candidate?

The right way to handle this issue?

Am I alone in feeling uneasy about the way in which the 12 year old boy in Darlington, who was identified as one of three children photographed bus-surfing, has been paraded in the press and on regional tv?

Bus surfing is a craze at the moment among a small group of young teens in the town. It is stupid and could well have serious consequences. I'm pleased to see that Arriva have made physical changes to their buses so that they can no longer be used for this game. But surely the safety message could have been given to kids through the media and through their schools, without making an example of a 12 year old and turning him into a folk hero among his mates.

If he'd broken the law or been charged with an offence, his identity would have been protected: for his own good. Here he is being accused of being an idiot and he is being encouraged to appear on tv and in the press, to be lionised or ridiculed depending on your point of view. What good will this do?

The way this young kid's activities and apparent unrepentant attitude have been paraded for all to see will surely do nothing to alter his personal individual behaviour. This should have been dealt with privately, within his family and his school, not played out in the media. The notoriety this kid will have gained will do nothing to improve his behaviour or attitude: perhaps the opposite in fact.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Traffic chaos around Northwood School

Last night was my first ward surgery in one of the Community Rooms at the new Northwood School. One big issue is the chaos on the surrounding streets at the moment at drop-off and pick-up time. Apparently buses sometimes can't get through because of the sheer volume of cars parked haphazardly around the school.

This is due to the school car park not being ready yet which has forced school staff to park on the streets. The appalling weather has meant that many external works are still to be completed, though rapid progress is now being made. Once the car park is open I am confident the problems on the surrounding streets will disappear.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Inaugural Darlington Debate

Off to Lingfield Point last night to sit in a huge empty factory unit, complete with lovely silver foil wrapped extraction ducts, for the inaugural Darlington Debate: "The Economic Future of Darlington: Dynamism or Decline".

It was presented as a "Question Time" style event, cordially chaired by Peter Barron, editor of the Northern Echo. Unfortunately it lacked that key ingredient that makes QT such rivetting viewing: a divergence of views on the panel. I don't recall any significant disagreements among the panellists and only one minor spat in the audience about the role of the voluntary sector.

Also, because the panel were on the same level as the audience, those of us sitting near the back could not see the speakers very well. And hopefully they'll get the sound system sorted out before the next debate, whenever that might be. Maybe there'll be a General Election version with the various party candidates. That'll be fun!

Tomorrow there will be a report in the Echo and also the chance to watch the whole thing on internet tv. Don't expect any great insights or excitement, though. This was a decent start to what I understand will become a regular series of debates, but with all the speakers keen to stress the positive side of business in Darlington and no one on the panel to represent the unions or the wider community, it was (just like the Darlington Partnership Prosperous Theme Group) full of the prosperous and successful. A little controversy would have been appreciated!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Scrutiny debates Acute Stroke provision

I attended the Special Health and Well-being Scrutiny Committee meeting in the Town Hall this morning. The topic under debate was the future of acute stroke service provision in Darlington, following the leaking to the press of a document last week which suggested that the stroke unit at Darlington Memorial was to close.

In the debate at Scrutiny it became clear to me, having listened to local GOLD and Age Concern members in the public gallery, that the action of Jenny Chapman, the Labour Party’s Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington, in leaking to the press an incomplete internal NHS Trust document, has caused great anxiety among the elderly population of Darlington. Surprisingly, Cllr Chapman chose not to attend the Scrutiny Meeting, which is strange, since just a week ago she was bleating on in the press and on her Facebook page that she had saved the day for Darlington. You'd have thought she would have been present, basking in the glory of having rescued the stroke service from imminent closure. Except, that's not quite how it is.

I do not hold the Echo responsible for causing such anxiety amongst local people: as a campaigning newspaper they were obliged to run with the story. But Cllr Chapman, and whoever it was at the highest level in the Labour Group who provided her with this document, clearly had no thought for the anxiety and distress that rushing to the press with this story would create.

Cllr Chapman’s only concern was to gain some fleeting political advantage for herself with no thought of the wider consequences of her actions. This scare-mongering is not the approach we should expect from someone who wishes to represent the people of Darlington.

What is important is that all parties come together to ensure that Darlington retains the highest quality acute stroke provision at our local hospital. Our top priority should be protecting local health services, not causing great public anxiety by pursuing cheap party political advantage.

As Stephen Eames, the Chief Executive of the NHS Trust said this morning, "The leaking of this document was unfortunate. The document was incomplete and was for discussion." He was "Very sorry that it happened." He stressed that there were "no plans to close the Darlington Stroke Unit in the forseeable future."

Due to impending retirements and recruitment difficulties, there would have been short-term pressure on the service later this year. Thankfully, one of the intending retirees has agreed to continue in post for longer if necessary and it is hoped the other will also do so. The current level of provision is assured.

Furthermore, despite Cllr Chapman's claims that closure was imminent, steps had already been taken within the Trust to recruit other senior staff to relieve some of the other pressures on consultants in the Stroke Unit, thereby freeing up their time to concentrate on providing stroke services. The continuing provision of acute stroke services in Darlington at the current level was never under threat. If Cllr Chapman had bothered to speak to Stephen Eames before she went running to the Echo, she would not have caused so much anxiety among local people.

There is a longer-term debate required, however, because of the Government's commitment to provide acute stroke services on a 24/7 basis. A full debate with all interested groups and a thorough public consultation will have to be carried out to consider the best way to achieve that target. This regional review, "could lead to the reconfiguration of stroke services in the region."

Labour Councillor Ian Hazeldine said he was of a "cynical view which would be that you (the Trust) are setting yourselves up to make decisions later on a cost basis." He said, "I haven't heard anything that tells me this is a genuine attempt at consultation and not just the start of a cost-cutting exercise." Ian clearly suspects that this is the start of a process that could see stroke provision in Darlington compromised by the need to reduce costs.

The Trust spokesman, in response, said, "This isn't about cost-cutting at all - in fact we are putting more money into the service. There are no plans to change the number of beds available."

Conservative Councillor Heather Scott said, "I stress the importance of having all the information available before this Committee to enable it to contribute to the debate. I will fight tooth and nail to ensure we have the best services in Darlington."

Lib Dem Councillor Peter Freitag asked why this document had not been brought before the Trust advisory board, on which he sits.

Conservative Councillors Kate Davies and Gill Cartwright concentrated on the leaking of this document to Cllr Chapman and through her to the press: "irresponsible", "scare-mongering" were typical of their comments. Gill said it is important that these papers should go to Scrutiny before being leaked to other backbench councillors. The Chair refused to allow discussion of the leak.

The debate about the long-term future of acute stroke service provision in Darlington and County Durham, in the light of the requirement to provide a 24/7 service, must be held and, if the Trust at some stage proposes to remove part of this service from Darlington it must be opposed as strongly as we can. But that is a different issue to the short-term problem, which had already been solved, of consultants' planned retirements later this year. And it should be done by all parties working together and campaigning as appropriate - not by scare-mongering and seeking narrow party political advantage.

Sainsbury's to open in Duke Street

How did this squeeze in under the radar? Walking to work this morning, the signs have finally been erected outside the shop conversion work which has been going on in Duke Street since Christmas in what used to be Sanderson's Estate Agents and before that, Golf World. It's to be a new Sainsbury's Local.

The small grocery, newsagents and confectionery shop on the corner of Larchfield Street opposite has not opened for business this week, having clearly been suffering reduced trade for several months. And I don't suppose the little Spar just 50 metres away from the Sainsbury's shop will be too impressed with its brash new neighbour.

First the big supermarkets destroyed most of our town centre butchers, bakers and greengrocers: now they won't stop until they've put our local convenience stores out of business too.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Thaw creates flooding problems

Today's leafletting in Haughton North was interrupted by a trip to Zetland Street in North Road ward tojoin Cllr Anne-Marie Curry, talking to local householders about flooding in their back yards and kitchens. As the thaw sets in, the problems caused by the long weeks of sub-zero temperatures are now becoming apparent.

Heavy rain and ice melt combined with a blocked drain in the Zetland Street back alley to cause water to pour into nearby houses. Thankfully, although the problem occurred in the early hours of the morning, the Fire Brigade were on hand to pump the water away. During the day the offending drain has been cleared, so hopefully local householders' will not be inconvenienced again.

Similar problems have been reported by my friend and Haughton West Lib Dem Focus editor, Alan Macnab, in his ward. He noticed this morning that the Green Lane gullies at the back of houses in Muirkirk Grove in Whinfield, were beginning to overflow with water towards the properties as a result of the thaw.

Alan reported this to Darlington Borough Council's Emergency Out of Hours Service who visited promptly to monitor water levels and to prevent water flowing into the rear of homes. Council workmen were in Green Lane this afternoon and pumped out water from the gullies.

Alan has achieved several improvements for local residents over the past few months. The Haughton West Focus team of Alan, Tom Hodgson and Tom Raper, is proving to be a formidable campaigning team. The photo shows Tom Hodgson and Alan Macnab in Green Lane - before the snow melted!

A bit silly

Try typing into your browser. Where does that take you? To the Darlington Conservative Future website, that's where. Sadly, Alan Milburn will not be standing for Labour in Darlington in the general election (that really would have spelt the end of Labour's tenuous hold on this seat) so the Tories' swoop for this domain name is a bit irrelevant now - as well as being silly.

Meanwhile, the Northern Echo's love-in with Cllr Chapman continues apace. The opening of an inaccessible second floor office on the corner of the Martket Place apparently warrants a full colour photo of Labour's young candidate.
By the way Jenny, I used to rent those offices back in the days when I owned the ground floor restaurant and a shop across the road, so if you find a fiver down the back of the kitchen cabinet, it's mine.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

"The gloves are off"

So said a senior Conservative Councillor to me following the revelation that nascent plans to close the newly opened Stroke Unit at Darlington Memorial Hospital had been leaked to the Labour Party's candidate in the General Election - a backbench councillor with no reason to be informed ahead of the rest of us, other than the naked desire for party political advantage.

In a statement to the Cabinet on Tuesday evening, the Chief Executive of the Council said she had been informed late last week, by the Chief Executive of the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, that consideration was being given to the possible closure of the Stroke Unit. This information was shared with Labour Councillors and leaked to the Labour Party's Parliamentary candidate. She took it to the Echo, which blazoned her across its front page. The Echo chose not to approach opposition parties for their views.

At the Cabinet meeting, the Leader of the Council asked for cross-party support to oppose this plan: support which Heather Scott and I were pleased to give, though the bare-faced cheek of the Labour Leader calling for support from the opposition parties so soon after disgracefully excluding us from this issue takes my breath away.

As I said in Cabinet, any such closure would be completely unacceptable. The tendency to remove health services from local areas and place them in centres often many miles from patients is not good for local patients and is too often carried out as a cost-saving exercise with no consideration of the effect on health provision where it is actually required.

I am happy to give my unqualified support to any attempts by the Council to stop the closure of this unit, though I remain deeply unhappy about the way in which the issue was used by people at the very highest level within the Council for party political advantage, especially when this sort of health issue affecting our town is one which should be fought by all political parties without trying to score points off each other.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

What a game!

Liverpool (John William's team) 1, Reading (my wonderful Royals) 2. Get in!

I was going to blog about the dishonourable leaking, from the very highest level within Darlington Council to the Labour Party's candidate in the General Election, of the Health Trust's proposal to close the stroke unit in Darlington, and the deliberate hiding of this information from the opposition parties until after the Labour candidate had milked it in the press.

I was going to blog about the story due to appear in the Echo tomorrow about Welfare Rights in Darlington.

But until the adrenaline caused by the mighty Royals' extra time FA Cup win over the once-mighty Liverpool has dissipated, I just can't concentrate on anything else. Bring on Burnley (my brother-in-law's team) in the next round.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Some photos of snow in Stanhope Road

Last night we had the heaviest snowfall to date in Darlington. The Regional PPC training event in Gateshead has been called off, so instead, I went out early this morning to take some photos around my house.

I'm lucky enough to live in a house built in 1867 in the most beautiful road in the west end of Darlington, an area of Victorian and Edwardian terraces described by Nickolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, as perhaps the most perfect example of urban living anywhere in the country.

Stanhope Road North is a mix of Victorian terraced housing with Stanhope Green, our wonderful Victorian park, at its heart. Across the park are the twin wonders of the Arts Centre and the Sixth Form College, both beautiful buildings spoilt just a little by the modern carbuncle which is the entrance to the College.

The photos above show you what Stanhope Road and the Green looked like at 8am this morning. The top photo shows my house: the furthest away of the two with stone bow windows in the middle. The second is the Sixth Form College, the third is the Arts Centre and the bottom one the view from my front door.

Friday, 8 January 2010

North East Local Government Summit

To The Sage, Gateshead (or Newcastle, as the Conservative Shadow Spokesman for Local Government, Bob Neill, called it, bless him) today for the first North East Local Government Summit. Sadly, numbers were much depleted by the weather. Of the 12 or so Darlington councillors who had signed up to go, only me and Ian Hazeldine managed it. The trains were running fine, which is how I and most of the Council's CMT travelled.

The main hall was perhaps less than a quarter full, which was a shame because the speakers included Nick Brown, Jeremy Beecham, Margaret Eaton, Dave Prentis, Barry Quirk and Phyllis Starkey. By far the best speaker of the day, however, was former Olympic Champion, Chancellor of Sunderland University and "all round good thing" as the Chair called him, Steve Cram. He was amusing, witty, forceful, thoughtful and spoke with barely a glance at his notes for 20 minutes.

The day really consisted of sitting in the hall, a magnificent modern concert arena I'd not been in before, listening to a succession of speakers telling us about the challenges facing local government and about how great the north east is. There was very little time for questions and no chance for debate. Probably the main attraction for the movers and shakers, of which I am neither, was the chance to get together away from the office and to network with other local council leaders.

I didn't find it terribly useful. I do find these events which continually talk up the region a bit tedious. It's as if they're trying to convince themselves and us how wonderful the region is. I love the north east, but if I was told once I must be confident and proud of the region I was told a dozen times today. I got the message the first time, thanks.

Still, it made a change from work and I did get the chance to catch up with an old friend of mine who, unknown to me, has just landed the job of Head of Performance at Durham County Council.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Memorial Hospital on Red Alert

The combined effects of elderly people suffering respiratory illnesses in this continuing bad weather and a higher than normal rate of falls leading to fractures and other injuries, has meant that Darlington Memorial Hospital is on "Red Alert". It is full - there are no beds available for routine surgery patients and all but the most critical new admissions are having to be transferred elsewhere.

This can happen in extreme circumstances, which these weather conditions certainly are.

At least, as the relevant Council Director said at yesterday's Neighbourhood Services Scrutiny Committee, the lessons of the first few days of the snow before Christmas have been learnt and the town centre pavements and pedestrianised areas are now being gritted and cleared quickly and efficiently. After a slow start, which I and many others justifiably criticised, the snow clearing operations in the town centre are now excellent.

One big problem which I, and Cllr Copeland, mentioned at yesterday's Cabinet meeting, is that sheltered housing and elderly persons' accommodation is not being targetted for snow clearance. I received an anguished email on Monday from the son of an elderly couple living in sheltered accommodation in Katherine Street, to say that his parents had not been able to leave their flat since before Christmas.

Street Scene promised to get the paths to this accommodation cleared. But since then we've had another heavy downfall of snow. It's never ending: made worse by watching the exciting third Test Match in South Africa where England are battling for survival under clear skies with temperatures up in the 30s.